Why do some sex offenders get jailed when others walk from court?

Criticism is frequently levelled at judges – but more often than not they are following official guidelines.

Why do sentences for sex offenders differ?

There are a number of different factors that judges have to weigh up when considering what sentences to give a criminal in front of them in the dock.

The most important – obviously – is what crime they’ve committed.

Sexual offences range widely – as do the punishments.

Most of the different sex crimes are set out in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. People accused of historic sex offences will be prosecuted under the laws that existed when they carried out their perverted crimes.

The Sexual Offences Act includes the most heinous sex crimes, such as rape and sexual assault of a child under 13 by penetration, which carry maximum sentences of life imprisonment.

The Act also covers crimes like soliciting, which can only be punished with a fine, and indecent exposure, which carries a maximum punishment of two years behind bars.

Other laws cover crimes like possession of indecent images of children and so-called “revenge porn”.

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Swindon Crown Court 

Judges have to consider the sentencing guidelines

Many sexual offences have sentencing guidelines. Developed by the Sentencing Council, these give judges a guide as to the kind of punishments they should mete out for different crimes.

The guidelines get the lawyers and the judge to consider two main questions: the harm someone’s offending has done to their victims and society and that the defendant's culpability or blameworthiness.

There might be aggravating features of the crime that mean they deserve a harsher sentence, for example if the victim has suffered severe psychological harm as a result of what they’ve endured or if the defendant has offended in a similar way before.

But there are also mitigating factors, for example that the defendant has a learning disability that affects their blameworthiness.

The sentencing guidelines may push the judge towards imposing a lengthy term in prison – or they might direct the judge to give the defendant a community order.

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Sophie Elms, from Royal Wootton Bassett, was Britain's youngest female paedophile when she was jailed for seven years and 10 months in 2019 Picture: SWNS


In the Sentencing Council’s sexual offences guidelines, judges are told that a lengthy community order with a sex offender treatment programme can be an alternative to a short prison sentence “where there is a sufficient prospect of rehabilitation”.

Part of the challenge facing judges is that rehabilitation programmes for sex offenders take so long that there isn’t time for them to complete the courses in prison – particularly if the sentencing rules only allow for a short jail sentence.

By contrast, a three year community order gives enough time to complete the sex offender programme, called Horizon. And judges might feel that the risk posed by a convicted paedophile can be adequately managed by a Sexual Harm Prevention Order, typically imposed on a defendant for 10 years and designed to restrict their access to children online and in the real world. Breaching a Sexual Harm Prevention Order or Sexual Risk Order carries a five year prison sentence.

The worst offenders do get punished

There are hefty sentences for the worst offenders. In May, Swindon Crown Court resident Judge Peter Crabtree handed down seven years and eight months to a dad who abused his young daughter to order for a paedophile ring on messenger app Kik. Judge Jason Taylor QC ordered repeat offender Peter Kis serve an extended three year period on licence when he jailed the man for two years in July for his latest sex crimes.